UTEP wins WAC title

RENO - UTEP got help from the expected and unexpected in beating Boise State for the WAC Tournament championship and a second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.

Fili Rivera, the tournament MVP, scored a career-high 32 points and dished out eight assists, and center John Tofi scored a season-high 21 points to lead the Miners to a 91-78 win before a crowd of 4,178 Saturday night at Lawlor Events Center.

The win upped UTEP's record to 27-7, and ended Boise State's Cinderella run through the tournament. The Broncos (16-18) won three games in four days to reach the finals, including an upset of top-seeded Nevada on Thursday.

Rivera more than doubled his scoring average of 13 points a game, and Tofi, who had two off-season foot surgeries, more than tripled his 6.2 average.

"He (Rivera) is the best there is, and I believe that," UTEP coach Doc Sadler said. "Fili doesn't score unless we need him to score. We were really struggling, and he comes up big and gets 32. If you look to the right (on the stat sheet) he still had eight assists. A lot of people in El Paso know and so do the people in the WAC, but a lot of people will find out how good he is (next week).

"John has been hurt. He's so critical to the team. People are just starting to see what he's about. The last couple of weeks, he's got the lift back in his feet."

Sadler said the Miners made a conscious effort to get the ball to Tofi.

"Boise State does a great job of switching, so it's hard to get an open shot," Sadler said. "We were patient enough to get the ball from side to side. We told him to drop step back instead of turning to the middle."

"He (Sadler) told me to get the ball and go up with it; go up strong," Tofi added. "It was a good time to get in a groove."

Tofi scored the Miners' first basket on a designed play, and his three-point play, two free throws and putback sparked a 15-6 run that enabled the Miners to open a 27-19 lead with 8:14 left.

Then it was Rivera's turn to lead the charge. After Boise cut the lead to 27-24 on an Eric Lane three-pointer, the Miners went on a 13-7 run of their own en route to a 41-31 halftime lead. Rivera had two layups and a three-pointer with 41 seconds left.

The Miners stretched the lead to 61-41 with 12:34 to play, as Tofi scored on a three-point play, a layup and a foul shot.

It would have been easy for the tired Broncos to quit, but they didn't. Behind Coby Karl (24 points), who had a three-pointer and six free throws and Jason Ellis, who had 11 in that span, the Broncos cut the lead to 76-67 with 3:57 left.

"We definitely felt the magic," Karl said. "Unfortunately we didn't make the plays."

Rivera kept BSU at bay with a three-pointer and two free throws to make it 83-70 with 2:15 left.

"We're happy to be dancing," Rivera said. "We worked so hard for the last five or six months."

Sadler didn't believe the Miners needed to win to get an NCAA bid, but obviously he's relieved that they don't have to sweat out Selection Sunday.

It was disappointing for the Broncos, who were hoping to be this year's Cinderella story.

"We got beat - three times - by a very good basketball team," Boise State coach Greg Graham said. "I'm proud of my guys. They were in a tough situation and hung tough. It shows how far we've come. We were picked to finish seventh (in preseason) and finished eighth, and we got to the championship game."

Notes: Omar Thomas, Boise State's Jermaine Blackburn and Jason Ellis, and Rice's Michael Harris joined Rivera on the all-tournament team ...The Miners are 12-2 as a No.2 seed in post-season tournaments, and have reached the finals the five times they have been a No. 2 ... Since the start of the 2002-03 season, UTEP is 47-4 when scoring 70 or more points.

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